You can’t control your teen, but you can refuse to let them control you

A parent of a troubled 17 year old told me he felt shame that he couldn’t control his son. He said biblically he wasn’t even worthy of being a leader in the church. He was referring a passage in the Bible (1 Timothy 3) where Paul lists the qualifications for being in leadership in the church. One of the qualifications is “he must be able to….keep his children under control…”. Well first off, a 17 year old isn’t a child. As far as I can tell neither should a 16 year old or a 15 year old or even a 14 year old be considered a child. In the Jewish culture, boys reached adulthood at age 13 and it was celebrated with a bar mitzvah. In Jewish law, parents were held legally responsible for the actions of their children. But after your son’s bar mitzvah he’s on his own legally. At a bar mitzvah, the father traditionally prays a blessing to God that he is no longer held accountable for his son’s sins! So rejoice – the actions of your older teen do not necessarily need to be seen as a reflection of your parenting any more than the actions of Adam and Eve reflect God’s parenting skills.

The timing of this transfer of responsibility coincides with the age about which kids brains develop the ability to “think for themselves”. Up to this point they are mainly learning, learning, learning. a child’s brain is like a new computer that has just been built. It needs the operating system (Windows or Mac etc) to be installed before it can run applications. Before 13 they look to you and their school and their phones to teach them everything. Around ages 13 and 14 the basic programming has been written and their brains are now ready to perform more autonomously. This is the time when personal freedom of choice kicks in. They are capable of thinking for themselves, they form their own opinions, they decide their own fate. This is both beautiful and tragic.

The tragic part is that you can no longer control them. You can no longer control your child once autonomy begins to form. As a parent this is something that you may have to grieve and process. You can’t keep them from making mistakes. You can’t keep them from throwing their lives away, if that’s what they decide to do. Grab a pillow, bury your face in it, and sob away the pain and fear – you can’t save them anymore. You can’t control them any more than God controls you. God Himself won’t break their autonomy so how are you going to do it? If you keep trying, you are fighting a battle that’s already lost.

What you CAN do, and should do is make sure they are not controlling you! Here’s where codependence needs to get off the bus. Does your kid’s bad decision ruin your day? Does your kid’s lack of affection or respect hit you in the gut and take the wind out of you? Can your kid get you to rescue him from the consequences of his bad decisions? Do you save your kid from the rules he has at your divorcee’s house? Can your kid’s attitude make you escalate and start yelling? Can they get you to buy them things that you are ashamed of buying? Can their anger or pleading make you back away from your house rules and your principles? Can their pestering make you go back on your word? We can only control ourselves, so let us focus on what we can control and give to God the pain and fear of what we cannot control.

You can’t make your teen obey, but you can refuse to obey them when they ask you to remove logical consequences for not obeying. You can’t make them make wise decisions, but you can refuse to allow them to convince you to rescue them from the consequences of bad decisions. You can’t chose who they date or marry, but you can control how you respond to their significant other and how you talk about them. Respond to you teen (you are in control of yourself) instead of reacting to your teen (they are controlling you).

People usually learn better from example rather than teaching. This is especially true of your teen. They will tune out most of what you try to teach them, but they can’t ignore the example you set before them. Trying to control someone usually causes them to push back, which has the potential to make them worse. Living a life based on good principles, treating people with respect, working on your own flaws, and being open about your own personal relationship with Jesus are more likely to effect change than the best lecture you can contrive.

Like I said, it’s both tragic and beautiful. Be excited for your teen’s individualism and developing autonomy. He’s being birthed into our world, the adult world; and you are no longer ultimately responsible for his decisions. It’s ok to feel a sense of relief about that. Most teens will hit some bumps on the road to functional adulthood – some more than others. Thank God they are not little RC units (remote control), they are their own person. As a parent of an older teen, it may be time to quit hyper-focusing on your teen and return to focus on managing your own personal growth.

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, 
courage to change the things I can, 
and wisdom to know the difference.”

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